Denver mayor-elect Michael Hancock won't be the first to be doing some serious swearing in the Buell Theatre at his swearing-in ceremony on Monday. Not by a long, 3-point hoops shot.
The Buell, now home to mostly family-friendly Broadway musicals that draw about a half-million people each year, spent much of its previous life as the rowdy, rickety and raucous Auditorium Arena, the city's home for concerts, professional basketball, tennis, volleyball and, most swearingly, WWF wrestling.
Long before the witches of the Broadway musical "Wicked" took ownership of the Buell, spirits roamed the air there. In 1975, the official mascot of the Indiana Pacers basketball team put a hex on the Denver Nuggets before their championship series. Team management countered by hiring a witch to remove the spell in a grand ceremony before the deciding game. (This would be a better story if the Nuggets had won.)
On Dec. 26, 1968, Led Zeppelin played its first U.S. concert at the Auditorium Arena. That same year, Eric Clapton played there with his band Cream. The opening act? A hypnotist!
The deco-inspired rounded corner at 13th and Champa streets was a gateway to sports and culture for more than 100 years, a place where indelible memories have been planted and bloomed over time into tales of impossible exaggeration. It's been home to musicals, comedians, chorales, symphonies, queens, high-school basketball championships, graduations and funerals. Dozens of actors decided what they wanted to be when they grew up absorbing musicals on the Buell stage.
Originally built as part of the larger Denver Municipal Auditorium to host the 1908 Democratic National Convention, the 6,841-seat basketball arena made up the southwestern half of the building starting in 1953. The other half housed the more culturally sophisticated Auditorium Theatre — now the Ellie Caulkins Opera House.
In 1974, Denver Post publisher Donald Seawell stopped by the Auditorium Arena, then an aging eyesore surrounded by what he called "a mass of urban decay," and decided to build around it and create what is today the largest arts complex in the world under one roof.
Everybody has their own memories, and I have mine. My father was a reporter who covered the Denver Rockets (later called the Nuggets) for The Denver Post, often towing combinations of his eight kids through the bowels of the Auditorium Arena, where coach Larry Brown liked to rub my brother Kevin's crew-cutted head for luck. Dad would then lug us across California Street to what was then The Denver Post building to write his game stories for the afternoon edition.
Lloyd Norton, namesake of the University of Northern Colorado's Norton Theatre, remembers speaking at his Denver West High School graduation at the arena in 1955 — with the mumps. Denver Center president Randy Weeks remembers taking in Feyline concerts like Joni Mitchell while a student at the University of Colorado. Cathy Thomas remembers seeing "Bubbling Brown Sugar" and "The Wiz" as a girl at the adjacent Auditorium Theatre in 1977, and being both awestruck and inspired at seeing an all-black cast for the first time.
In 1935, the Amateur Athletic Union moved its national basketball tournament from Kansas City to Denver, making it the biggest sporting event in town. The arena was also home to Olympic basketball trials competitions in 1948 and 1960. It was there that Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas and Jerry West made the 1960 U.S. Olympic team.
The birth of the Denver Rockets basketball team in 1967 forever changed the local sporting landscape, thanks largely to Olympic gold medalist Spencer Haywood's decision to play not in the established NBA but the upstart American Basketball Association.
First Denver sports megastar
In 1969-70, Haywood averaged 30 points and 19 rebounds a game, becoming Denver's first undisputed megastar. Tickets were $1 to $4 a game, and Haywood's salary was $50,000.
The ABA meant red, white and blue balls, 3-point shots (later adopted by the NBA), coaches wearing silk disco shirts and bell-bottomed denims, and players like Warren Jabali sporting Afros that grew out to 14th street. Foes included the Oakland Oaks and Anaheim Amigos. Opposing players included legends like Julius Erving, Rick Barry, Artis Gilmore and George Gervin.
The arena was also home to the Denver Rackets professional tennis team, which featured Francois Durr, and the Denver Comets of the International Volleyball Association.
Longtime kingpin theater producer Robert Garner also used the arena for concerts by Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, David Cassidy and Neil Diamond, "but wrestling was king," he says. "There were matches there every two weeks."
But the arena went largely idle after the renamed Nuggets bolted for the new McNichols Sports Arena in 1975. Fifteen years later, plans were well underway to convert the dilapidated arena into the Buell Theatre when Garner got a call from his friends, British theater producers Alan Wasser and Sir Cameron Mackintosh.
"They said we could have the first national touring production of 'Phantom of the Opera' — if Denver had a theater that could hold it," said Garner. That meant massive upgrades to the planned backstage area, forcing, in effect, Denver to commit to building what would be, for its day, a world-class facility.
"And right up to the end, we were not sure it was going to be ready to open on time," Garner said. "But contracts were signed, and we were on the hook no matter what."
That production christened the Buell in 1991 and drew 224,393, generating $11 million in ticket sales and making an estimated $22 million economic impact.
Since then, the Buell has hosted notable touring productions of "Sunset Boulevard" and "The Lion King." It has also hosted headliners like Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld, "Unique Lives" speakers including Madeleine Albright, Laura Bush and Queen Noor of Jordan, and hip musicians like Nick Cave and Ray LaMontagne. In 2008, it was the somber home to a funeral for assassinated Adams County prosecutor Sean May.
One rarely seen signature of the Buell is the backstage "Actor's Alley," which connects the theater to dressing rooms and other facilities in the complex. Since 1991, a door-sized painting of each touring show's poster or playbill has lined backstage hallways, signed by performers including Julie Andrews, David Copperfield, Tommy Tune, Chita Rivera, Julie Taymor, Savion Glover and even former President Bill Clinton.
By 2008, the Buell had already grown pale in the shadow of the sparkling new Ellie Caulkins Opera House. So, in preparation for another Democratic National Convention, the Buell came full circle, undergoing a $1.2 million upgrade that included new cherry-stained wooden seats with stadium-style cupholders and deep-red plush upholstery.
Denver has plenty of landmarks where civic memories have been made. But few can compare to the sweaty, sophisticated Buell. None seems a more appropriate a place to swear in our newest mayor.
John Moore: 303-954-1056 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The Buell Theatre: A timeline
1991: The city transforms the old Auditorium Arena into a 2,830-seat, state-of-the-art Broadway roadhouse called the Temple Hoyne Buell Theatre.
1995: Opera Colorado's season-opening "Tosca" draws sellout crowds and rave reviews.
2001: Comedian Jerry Seinfeld plays two sold-out nights on his first tour since ending his popular TV show.
2002: Disney Theatricals chooses Denver to host the first national touring production of "The Lion King." More than 1,800 fans stand in line for tickets, and in all, 220,000 attend the 10-week run that infuses an estimated $58 million into Denver's economy.
2004: The "Radio City Christmas Spectacular" tour draws 159,041 for 64 performances in 39 days.
2004: North High School becomes the first (and only) high school to stage a production at the Buell, "The Zoot Suit Riots," drawing 2,100.
2005: The Ellie Caulkins Opera House opens next door as home to the Colorado Ballet and Opera Colorado.
2007: "White Christmas," a collaborative production by the Denver Center Theatre Company and Denver Center Attractions, draws 107,567.
2008: The Buell undergoes a $1.2 million upgrade in preparation for the Democratic National Convention, including a series of "Rock the Vote concerts," a civil-rights ceremony hosted by Danny Glover and Vivica Fox, and an "eTown" radio taping with David Crosby, Graham Nash, James Taylor and Ani DiFranco.
— Compiled by John Moore